Monday 25 May 2009

Why most PowerPoint presentations suck, and what to do about it

The phrase “Death by PowerPoint” (70,000+ hits on google) has nearly as many miles on the clock as the dreaded Bullet Points Of Doom, but a lot of the good information out there about creating better presentations seems to be preaching to the choir.  If you're self-aware enough to have looked for help on being a better presenter, you're probably not on the Most Wanted list of people likely to bore their colleagues or customers into a coma and you’ve probably realised that the default PowerPoint templates are about as beneficial to presentation audiences as tobacco is to beagles.
So, maybe you found your way here via one of my troubleshooting posts and this isn’t a topic you’ve devoted much thought to.  But maybe you’ve felt hours of your life tick by while you’ve watched your well-intentioned colleagues read through their screens full of bullet points and tables of data you can’t read from the back of the room.  Maybe you have a vague feeling that a lot of presentations are a waste of time, possibly even your own, and would like to break the cycle.  In that case, join the club!  I hope I’ve improved since I started getting interested in this topic a couple of years ago, but I’m very much a work in progress and I plan to keep learning.  I’m far from being an expert presenter, but I’ve listed some useful resources created by people who are at the bottom of this post.
Our managers have learnt to expect presentations in the same hackneyed formats, but that doesn’t mean we have to comply without question.  Most presentations where I work (and most places I’ve worked, for that matter) are doomed from the start because they follow a ‘default’ style that doesn’t take account of some basic aspects of human behaviour:
  1. If the audience are reading, they’re not listening.  If I’m talking and showing a page of text at the same time, I’m asking them to make a choice between one and the other, and it's not a conscious choice.  Unless I’m doing something to catch their eye, the text will get their attention.  If the text is all I wanted to get across, I could have sent out a document and saved my breath.
  2. People respond best to visual stimulus, and anyway, some things are difficult to communicate verbally.  Graphs and diagrams can make a point at a glance, tables of data just don’t have the same instant accessibility.  Photographs can add emotion and impact, which can help deliver a message and help the audience stay awake and interested.  Visual stuff is what slides are good for.  Words are for speaking.
  3. We have a short attention span.  Most adults can concentrate on a speaker for about 10 minutes before we need a change of some kind.  So if I have 30 minutes of material without much variation, I’ll have lost even the keenest members of my audience about a third of the way in.  I need to somehow break it up, whether that's by building in some audience participation, or an obvious change in dynamics, e.g. blanking the screen, getting out from behind the lectern and walking about to summarise my key points or introduce a new topic.
  4. Skimming my notes and rehearsing to myself is not the same as practicing it out loud.  Like most people, I feel like an idiot rehearsing my presentation in the mirror, but not nearly as much as if I rehearse in front of my audience.  Every presentation *is* a rehearsal at least the first two times I say it out loud (and to some degree every single time).  Like most people, I find the first few attempts are always awkward and clunky.  It's up to me who gets to see them.  (For the sake of disclosure I should add that I recently made the mistake of trying to deliver a presentation I hadn’t done for months.  It didn’t come straight back to me like I thought it would.  Lesson learnt, I hope.)
For a really interesting read about how the brain works and how we do our best to stifle it through the ways we set up our workplaces, check out John Medina’s book, Brain Rules or the Brain Rules site.
Anyway, as promised, some links to some real experts.  There are lots of great resources out there dedicated to making more killer presenters (killer meaning ‘very good’ as opposed to the literal sense).  Here are a few I’ve found helpful:
  • First is a slide show that made me laugh while making a very good point.  It’s more about how to write slides than present them, but I think it should be mandatory viewing for anyone who uses PowerPoint.  It takes about 2-3 minutes to watch and doesn't need a headset:
  • Next, a document from Seth Godin which is a bit more detailed.  Check out some of his TED talks to see his presentation style in action.
  • Finally, a great example of how to put together the in-person presenting with simple, uncluttered but relevant visual content.  Nancy Duarte worked with Al Gore on An Inconvenient Truth amongst other things.  (This one is kind of long and needs audio, but the first five minutes are enough to get the gist of her presentation style.)
It's easy to be daunted watching Nancy Duarte in action.  She does this for a living, most of us don’t.  And some of her graphics probably took a designer's touch to create them.  But that's not the point - the reason her presentation works is that she speaks with passion and humour, and her slides add to and complement her spoken words rather than fight with them.
Most of us don’t get to create presentations to save the world, we get told to present to our team about our project status or the recent re-organisation.  But regardless of what I’m presenting, if I use visual material I want it to make the content more accessible, interesting and persuasive.  Trotting out the same old bullet point format does just the opposite.
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